It started with a fabulous 19th-century gown and a box of messy photographs taken from a Guildford attic before moving to the country. It has resulted in being able to tell the true and moving story of Ranavalona III, the last queen of Madagascar.
Ranavalona’s remarkable life can be revealed thanks to the auction this week of personal effects unearthed by a descendant of Clara Herbert, who worked for the royal family of Madagascar from the 1890s to the 1920s.
Herbert was the hireling of a queen whose adventures were the stuff of fiction. Widowed at 22, she was forced to marry an elderly prime minister, dethroned after a French invasion, and exiled to Algiers, never to return.
The auctioneer Kerry Taylor has rebuilt Ranavalona’s story from the box of photographs, postcards, souvenirs, receipts and agendas that he sells on Tuesday.
“It has been the most fascinating detective work,” he said. “The queen I think was a very brave woman. He was very strong in adversity … he had to make the best of what life brought him.
Ranavalona’s husband was poisoned when he was about to access the throne. The finger has been pointed at the prime minister, a much older man who had been married to two previous queens and wanted Ranavalona as his wife.
“This poor girl had to marry this horrible old man,” Taylor said. “They told her she just needed to embroider and look good.”
A bigger problem was on the horizon. Shortly after his reign, in 1895, France invaded and annexed the island. Ranavalona was initially allowed to stay as a puppet queen, but the French authorities accused her influential aunt Ramisindrazana of inciting the Malagasy rebels.
Ranavalona, her aunt and other members of the royal family were sent to the island of Reunion, where the photographs in the archive show how miserable they were.
“They all look so upset and skinny and tired,” Taylor said. “You have Ranavalona and her aunt and nephew with a bowler hat outside this strange looking palace that they had built for them, it’s like a wooden villa.”
The cast of characters in the photographs includes 14-year-old Princess Razafinandriamanitra, who is heavily pregnant with the son of a French soldier.
Soon the royal family embarked on a ship bound for France. They dreamed of Paris, but when they docked in Marseille, it was clear that that was not the plan.
When told that they were going to Algiers, Ranavalona burst into tears and declared: “Who is sure of tomorrow? Yesterday I was a queen. Today I am simply an unhappy and heartbroken woman. “
Algiers turned out not to be so bad. It had a lively social scene and the queen became something of a local celebrity. The archive includes music programs dedicated to her and a cookie wrapper with her portrait.
There are pictures that show how happy he looks. The contrast to previous images is remarkable, Taylor said. “You have to pinch yourself, you say it can’t be her, that she seems like a different person. She has gained weight, she looks healthy and beautiful … Seriously, she looks like a completely different woman. “
In 1901, she was finally able to go to France, where she spent a fortune on dresses and was followed everywhere, Taylor said. “People are fascinated… She is beautiful, she is dressed in the best French fashion and she is a queen. What’s not to like?”
After Ranavalona’s death in 1917, her aunt received permission to move to the south of France, accompanied by the ever-loyal Herbert.
Ramisindrazana died around 1923 and it is her elaborate court dress of cyclamen pink satin and dark purple velvet, probably made in Madagascar, that ended up in the Guildford attic, along with the keepsake box.
Herbert briefly sought work in Nice before returning to the UK, where he lived in Reading. Her thirst for travel soon returned and she went to China as a Methodist missionary.
Taylor said it was incredibly rare to find 19th century haute couture worn by black women, “and even rarer to find a large number of documents, photographs, and ephemera to increase our understanding of them.”
Taylor has an estimate of £ 1,000-1,500 on file, but admits the figure is a stab in the dark.
How do you rate it? Where do you start? she said.
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